Bitching is better - and that's official

Whinge, gossip, and take your boss's rudeness as a compliment - that's the advice in a new study of office politics, reports …

Whinge, gossip, and take your boss's rudeness as a compliment - that's the advice in a new study of office politics, reports Brian Boyd

Underpaid, overworked and toiling for bosses who are patently incompetent and whose sole purpose, it seems, is to make your life a misery? There's a new coping strategy just for you: try "long or repeated expressions of discontent that are not necessarily intended to change or improve the unsatisfactory situation".

In other words, bitch and whinge at every available moment - even if it gets you nowhere, you'll feel better for it.

Bitching about your job and bosses has now been officially sanctioned by academics. A crack team of occupational psychologists at New Zealand's Victoria University has just issued a report which finds that bitching/whingeing is "a good emotional release and a sure way to build a rapport with your colleagues".


To further enhance your "emotional release" from the joyless and oppressive middle-management types who ask too much of you and "reward" you too scantly, the study highly recommends that you utilise a few choice swear words. But we sort of knew that already.

The study's director, Prof Janet Holmes, says that in the appropriate bitching-among-colleagues situation, swearing loses its offensive status and works as a bonding principle.

"When you use swear words to your colleagues about your job, what you're actually saying is 'I like you, so I can be rude to you' - and that's helpful," says Holmes.

People who work in stressful circumstances (say, for example, on a newspaper) find that the job becomes a tiny bit more bearable if they can identify a common enemy and focus all their bitching/whingeing onto him/her/them. This "enemy" may even be inanimate - it can be a particular work situation (a meaningless meeting, the carrying out of inane tasks to fulfil some ridiculous "quota" of work, and so on). Once colleagues identify the common enemy and focus their collective "bad vibes" in its direction, group morale can be significantly boosted.

The New Zealand study works against the received wisdom of how to negotiate the employer/employee relationship. Previously, researchers in the field always emphasised some nebulous notion of "positivity" and a small number of (usually) American self-help books argued that, as they would have it, accepting a negative situation and working through it to explore its positive dimensions was perhaps the best approach. This, as any employee will tell you, is patent nonsense. Bitching is better - and now it's official.

"Working as a teacher in a school with very difficult pupils, I found the only way to make the job manageable was to tell my colleagues just how tough I found it," says one Irish teacher. "The danger in these situations is that you think you're the only one having problems and the situation is entirely your fault. By swapping notes with the other teachers, I found, to my huge relief, that we were all having a terrible time and, to my relief, some people were having a worse time of it than I was. The fact that we were all in it together meant that we could bitch together and come to the realisation that the situation was bad not because of us but because of how the whole operation was being managed from above."

Bitching about your job, the study finds, works on many different levels. Once the primary purpose of "emotional release" is realised, a higher level of bitching will also reveal significant aspects of people's personalities, agendas and priorities - as well as information about the differing relationships between colleagues.

"Bitching can sometimes reveal information that people just don't want to address in a more formal, official work situation," says one middle manager who works in an Irish information technology company. "For example, a continual and very focused type of bitching directed at one person can suggest that the person doing the bitching wants someone else's job. By denigrating this person in informal situations, they're trying to enhance their own suitability for the job.

"When you then move into the area of office gossip you find that it can have a very useful service in that it keeps employees informed about the organisation they work for. If a company is in danger of going under, employees will usually have picked up on the situation before management tell them - simply from office gossip. Irish middle managers are notorious for keeping any company information from employees until the very, very last moment - so news of a new boss, an office relocation or whatever, is usually disseminated through an office gossip network before any form of official notification."

There's a gender difference here in that male employees will frequently refer to office gossip as "networking" or "de-briefing" whereas female employees will call it as it is. Prior to the smoking ban, the Irish workplace smoking room was the prime location of all "work-related information exchange". The smoking room has now, by necessity, become a more portable type of venue, with office gossip now taking place wherever and whenever necessary.

If, by any wild stretch of the imagination, you find your bosses to be rude and inconsiderate, you should now, apparently, take it as a compliment.

Nigel Nicholson, a professor of organisational behaviour at a British business school, says: "When your boss uses the sort of off-hand, flippant or even sarcastic language with you which in other cases would be risky, they are just demonstrating that the working relationship you have can withstand conventional limits and is therefore stronger."

So constant bitching about your job "facilitates group cohesion"; gossiping like a maniac "is the acquirement of necessary knowledge" and dumb, ignorant bosses who constantly undermine you are, in fact, expressing their love for you.

This is all fantastically liberating, but maybe one more study is needed. When was the last time a university researcher into occupational behaviour actually worked in an office?